I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was not easy to be Jewish in a small town. Anti-Semitic bullying was an everyday reality for many Jewish kids, including me. But it was in this environment that I gained insights into how to overcome hostility. I learned how to stand up for myself and, for better or worse, to be a Jew in a non-Jewish world. I learned how to interact with people from diverse backgrounds with different world views, and to make friends for myself and the Jewish people. I was doing intergroup relations and didn’t even know it.
My experiences motivated me to get involved in interfaith work. Over the years, I have learned that while reacting to anti-Semitism in crisis mode is sometimes necessary, being proactive in educating the public on Jewish values and building alliances with key segments of society is vital to long-term Jewish security. This strategy was recently underscored in a report issued by the Reut Institute and a Jewish Federation of North America/Jewish Council for Public Affairs Task Force that pointed to increased community relations efforts as a primary approach to combat anti-Semitism.
But not all Jewish communities, particularly in smaller locales, are equipped to effectively do this work. When people are unfamiliar with nuanced anti-Semitism, they often don’t recognize it when they see it. How can you be outraged at charges of “dual loyalty” if you’ve never heard the term before? How can you be appalled at subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to delegitimize Israel if you can’t see why calls for dismantling the Jewish state are fundamentally anti-Semitic?
In the early 1990s, when many in the Jewish world were seeing a decline in anti-Semitism, some of us were less sanguine. There was still ignorance, and no small measure of enmity, simmering beneath the surface. Today we are seeing these prejudices re-emerging on both ends of the political spectrum, and the hostile voices on the extremes are getting stronger, not weaker.
The Jewish community’s current response to anti-Semitism — mostly calling upon political leaders to condemn it — is not nearly enough and we are not getting traction. In order to address bigotry, the Jewish community needs a wide-ranging strategy for Jews and non-Jews alike on how to detect and confront anti-Semitism.
Recently, several national organizations have brought together government and Jewish leaders to discuss the rise in anti-Semitism. While these efforts are critical, we must also ensure that those working at the local level in coalition with the non-Jewish community have the resources, training and support they need to implement methodologies that can work.
JCPA, a convener of 125 Jewish Community Relations Councils and 17 national advocacy agencies, was created to deter anti-Semitism through intergroup relations. Support of JCPA’s robust grassroots network should be part of any comprehensive strategy adopted by the organized Jewish community in the United States. This strategy would require investment in five major areas:
• Train Jews, particularly younger ones, on how to engage with non-Jews in discussing cultural traditions and religious observances. The Student-to-Student program, first launched in St. Louis and now expanded to Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis, trains Jewish teens to educate non-Jewish teens with the aim of overcoming stereotyping and intolerance. Programs like this need to be scaled across the country.
• Energize our commitment to building alliances with ethnic groups that possess increasing demographic and political power in every community. There are 54 million Hispanics in America. Jewish organizations, to the degree they are trying at all, have barely scratched the surface in getting to know Latino leaders nationally and locally.
• Engage segments of society that are “at risk” for anti-Semitism on both political extremes. On the left, instead of trying to avoid legitimizing public figures whose views we don’t like, we must, as the Reut Institute urges, “fight intersectionality with intersectionality.” Jews must engage in progressive circles, embrace the causes of the day and ensure we have a seat at the table. At the same time, we must not fear talking to the right, many of whom do not have a firm understanding of Jews and Jewish issues.
• Prepare the next generation of advocates by providing more accessible, nuanced education on Israel. As initiatives to delegitimize Israel (i.e., BDS) gain momentum, we must respond with programming that leverages national resources to enhance local efforts.
• Develop social media toolkits for local communities to be effective communicators on issues important to the Jewish people. Use technology to bring people together vs. driving people apart. The Jewish community must strive to find common ground and consistency in its messaging.
In today’s climate, local communities cannot be left to their own devices to combat anti-Semitism. For the organized Jewish community, an effective strategy for delivering the necessary tools calls for a fundamental re-evaluation of our national priorities, a serious dedication of capital and a coordinated plan that leverages our collective resources to ensure the well-being of the Jewish people. It’s time that we take it to the next level. pjc
Michael Fromm is chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and lives in New York City and Reading. This article first appeared in New York Jewish Week.